As Engels averred, Marxism is a method, not a dogma. A sentiment easily stated but not so readily practised. It is all too easy to succumb to the comfortable “certainties” of a credenda, not having to forensically question what is simply held to be true.
For a good while there has been no article posted here. In part this has been due to activity directed elsewhere. However, there has also been a sustained period of examination of, and reflection on, previously held and stated positions. Where they have been found wanting, the process of correcting error has begun.
The recent EU referendum proved to be a catalyst. Before the campaign was launched, the accepted article of faith on this blog was that working class nationalism demanded sovereignty be reclaimed from the perfidious EU as part of a process to rebuild Britain.
Nationalism has proved to be dangerous and divisive, encouraging many of the worst political elements to spread their reactionary influence. The issues of sovereignty and free movement of labour became crucial and dangerously misunderstood.
The notion that sovereignty was being appropriated by the EU was inaccurate. National autonomy was certainly being compromised, inevitabl,y by being part of a greater political entity.
By way of analogy, joining a political party is a conscious act by a sovereign individual. In doing so that person agrees to surrender some personal autonomy to the collective party, he/she cannot be a member and then act contrary to its principles and purpose. However, the individual retains sovereignty in that he/she is free to leave the party if it demands adherence to policies no longer acceptable. Naturally, the party can expel such a member who’s unwilling to voluntarily concede autonomy.
So it is with the nation states of the EU. Britain is in the process of proving the strength of its sovereignty by reclaiming autonomy. However, that autonomy will subsequently be required for surrender by other nation states when trade deals are consequently concluded. China, for example, will not sign agreements without making demands to its own advantage that will compromise British autonomy, but not its sovereignty.
Free movement of labour between Britain and China (or any other trading partners) could well be one of the conditions. Such has always been a feature of capitalism. In its early days such movement was more usually within national boundaries: movement from the rural South to the industrial Midlands and North of England or impoverished lead miners from Cumberland to the developing coalfields of Northumberland and Durham.
Then capitalism was itself largely national in character. Now, it is international, global, and so the movement of labour reflects this. Trading blocs such as the EU try to exercise control by restricting free movement to labour within its own boundaries. However, the contradictions of international capital produces uneven economic development and conflict, much of it armed, so that labour in the guise of refugees, is drawn towards the apparent prosperity and relatively peaceable areas.
Britain might well be withdrawing from the EU, but it cannot do so from the world. All it can do is exchange one set of trading arrangements for other, as yet unspecified and uncertain, agreements. The problem is not the EU, but capitalism.
Remain or Leave were the alternatives posed by the referendum. As usual in votes organised by the state, the working class as the electorate is presented with options that serve the interests of capitalism. In this case an attempt to resolve an internecine conflict between competing capitalist camps. The working class was being asked to decide which brand of capitalist exploitation it would prefer.
By working class is meant the vast majority who depend for their livelihoods on selling their labour power. It is recognised that this class is stratified by differentials of income and, therefore, lifestyles, but it has the common factor of realising its own interests as opposed to those presently dominating society and the world, of capitalism.
The only way the working class should have responded to the referendum was by self-consciously declaring it had a preference for neither party, not voting and thereby negating the result’s validity. By participating it makes voters apparently culpable for the next crisis when crises are an inevitable feature of capitalism and can neither be prevented nor solved through the ballot box.
EU debate, such that it was, like most political processes initiated by the state, actually just keep the working class ideologically bound to capitalism, unable to pursue its own collectively defined agenda.
No matter how good, bad or indifferent the arguments were, there was no rational way of deciding between them as future outcomes were and are unpredictable. As the 2008 financial crash demonstrated, capitalism cannot foresee or mitigate the results of its own workings.
This left nationalism as a significant factor: the problem being the expression of one nationalism, in this case largely English nationalism, triggers the antipathy of a counter nationalism, such as Scottish nationalism. Thus, advocating withdrawal from the EU to secure British sovereignty actually becomes a threat to that sovereignty. Such are the contradictions of capitalism.
The SNP are a good example of a bogus alternative for workers. They have succeeded in displacing one social reform party, the Labour Party, by becoming an openly nationalist version of…a social reform party. This opportunistic trend has kept the working class firmly on capitalist terrain for over a century.
Marxists have very little influence at the moment and could not have made a significant intervention in the referendum. However, that does not mean Marxists should do other than pursue the correct line, that is, against nationalism and participation in capitalist disputes.
As Rosa Luxemburg wrote about a century ago, “It is not without reason that in revolutionary Marxism, internationalism rings out loud and clear and that opportunism is always matched by national particularism.” It is a lesson still to be learned.